The Origin of Humpty Dumpty

Nevin asks: Why is “Humpty Dumpty” always depicted as an egg?

humpty-dumptyAs you seem to have noticed, in the “Humpty Dumpty” nursery rhyme, nowhere does it say that Humpty is an egg, yet he is often presented as such in pictures and stories. The version of the rhyme that most children learn today goes like this:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

The first known publication of Humpty Dumpty was included in Juvenile Amusements by Samuel Arnold in 1797. In that version, the last lines read “Fourscore men and fourscore more / could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.” Over the next century, the rhyme appeared in numerous books with variations on the lyrics.

These publications did not include the first use of the term “humpty dumpty,” though. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “humpty dumpty” was first used in the 17th century and referred to brandy boiled with ale. In the 1700s, it was also a term used to describe a short, clumsy person. It has also been a nickname attributed to someone who has had too much alcohol (perhaps imbibing the drink of the same name).

As the popular nursery rhyme is neither a bottle of alcohol nor a person, it is most likely that the nursery rhyme was intended as a riddle. The answer to the riddle, of course, is “an egg”—something that, if it rolled off a wall, could not be mended by any number of people. Today, the answer is so well known that the character of Humpty Dumpty has taken on the appearance of an egg and the rhyme is not considered to be a riddle at all, but a story.

Because of this switch from “riddle” to “story”, many people today believe that there is more meaning to the nursery rhyme than is given in the lyrics. Perhaps, in this instance, we could take advice from Humpty Dumpty himself, as seen in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” People will always attribute more meaning to nursery rhymes than was initially intended.

Nursery rhymes are commonly linked to historical events, but it is difficult to prove that imagery in the nursery rhymes represents historical places and figures. Most modern rhymes, after all, are created with the intent of being silly, repetitive, and enjoyable for children to repeat rather than for their historical significance (think “Miss Mary Mack” and other clapping games).

Two of the most popular theories link Humpty Dumpty to two separate historical events. The first is the Fall of Colchester. During the English Civil War in 1648, the town of Colchester was under siege. Supposedly, a man named Jack Thompson was stationed on the walls with a cannon nicknamed “Humpty Dumpty.” Thompson and the cannon managed to do a lot of damage to the advancing Parliamentarian troops, until the cannon eventually tumbled to the ground. Given the size and weight of the cannon, the dozens of men who attempted to lift it back to its place on the wall were unable to do so. Eventually, Colchester was forced to open its gates and surrender. While the siege of Colchester did happen, it is unlikely that Humpty Dumpty refers to anything in the siege as it happened over a century before Humpty Dumpty was recorded and there is no documented connection between the two.

The other popular theory is that Humpty Dumpty represented King Richard III. , called the “humpbacked king”. (He supposedly was a hunchback, though recent evidence seems to indicate Shakespeare was wildly exaggerating on this point, with Richard actually apparently having scoliosis which made his right shoulder higher than the left, but otherwise no hunch).  In 1485, Richard III fought at the Battle of Bosworth. In this “humpty dumpty” origin story, it was said that either his horse was named “Wall” or his men, who abandoned him, were representative of the “wall.” Either way, the king fell off his horse and was supposedly hacked to pieces on the field—thus no one could put him together again. Several problems exist with this theory, the least of which being that the term “humpbacked” didn’t exist in King Richard’s day, nor for several centuries after. (The term “hunchback” also didn’t first pop up until the 18th century). Much more importantly was that the king’s remains were recently found largely intact save for a bludgeon to the head which probably killed him. Additionally, other than pure speculation, as in the previous “siege of Colchester” theory, no solid historical evidence has been found that shows that King Richard III was the inspiration for Humpty Dumpty.  And, indeed, one of the reasons it’s so often connected, because of the “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” bit, as noted, wasn’t even in the original version, being the more generic “fourscore men and fourscore more”.

The historical events that have been linked to “Humpty Dumpty” provide excellent stories, but are based on pure speculation. Given the actual evidence at hand, it is far more likely that Humpty Dumpty was not intended to be a story, but rather just a riddle posed to children for their amusement.  The answer to the riddle, as stated, is “an egg”, which is why Humpty Dumpty today is nearly always depicted as such.

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Bonus Facts:

  • The first time the character of Humpty Dumpty was represented explicitly as an egg was in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in 1872.
  • There is a supposed “lost” verse to the Humpty Dumpty rhyme that “proves” the Colchester theory, but it is likely that was written recently in order to help with the argument that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon. The man who presented the new verses would not tell anyone the title of the book in which he found them nor where the book could be found.
  • Riddles similar to Humpty Dumpty have been recorded in other languages—the French “Boule Boule” and Swedish “Lille Trille” among them.
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  • A third candidate has always been Cardinal Wolsey, who conviently died on his way to be (probably)
    executed by Henry VIII. Wolsey was pretty corpulent so he fits the image well.

  • A riddle has no answer,and when you get an answer it is not an answer to the riddle,it is the end of the story.And who else but the modern oracle,lewis carroll,deserves to end the story with a story that is a minefield of riddles.

  • In “The Fir-Tree” by Hans Christian Andersen, the fir-tree listens to a story about Humpty Dumpty, who fell down the stairs and married the princess. Is that story justified by any historical event, or is it just a part of the fiction in the story?

  • I was wondering if the Humpty Dumpty rhyme was originally meant to be a reminder to small children not to injure their skulls. Humpty Dumpty as an egg might be a metaphor for a head, the better to impress upon small children the permanency of a broken skull. Teaching a child to employ caution before attempting to climb to a high place or do something else that might result in trauma to the cranium.

    • that may be true but most rhymes were based upon historical events

    • Yes I must say this actually holds the most resonance to me Erica. In fact this is the reason I searched for the hidden meaning of the rhyme. I personally had several bad knocks to the head from a young age and has took me 20 years to pinpoint what was wrong with my reality, consciousness and outlook on life. As back then we just took a hit and got on with things. Oh well

  • I have never read such ignorance as i have on this subject . Humpty Dumpty was actually a large cannon that fell off a castle parapet and shattered “all the Kings horses and all the Kings men couldn’t put Humpty together again” . That is the actual meaning to this rhyme .

    • You honestly must not have read the story above. They show that theory but there is no evidence that actually links it to that event. Just hearsay, and no literature naming any cannon “humpty”

  • As a historian of chemistry, I have frequently heard that the Humpty Dumpty rhyme was inspired by the 1656 Magdeburg hemisphere demonstration. (For example, see One English historian of science made the wry comment that the rhyme shows the English people were as perplexed by Continental science then as they are now.

  • The contemporary meaning of “humpty dumpty” was both an alcoholic beverage and the associated drunkard. The riddle is similar to the colloquialism, “There is no use crying over spilled milk.” It refers to the impossibility of returning the spilled beverage to it’s original container and simultaneously to the futility of attempting to rescue hopeless drunkards. Something they must do themselves, with help.

  • then there is the idea that Humpty D. was none other than Satan the devil who sat on a wall between good and evil…..he fell off in a great fall from heaven…and the Kings horses and men……God ,his angels, ect. couldn’t put him back togeather .

    • The rhyme fits the meaning of the Fall – as the archetype of division and loss – and so can apply to any ‘recurrence’ of such meaning in the world that results from division and loss.
      The attempt to defend and vindicate the broken rather than yield a sense of loss to a prior wholeness of being, is to persist in spending a living inheritance as if the ‘Father’ or ‘Source-Nature’ is dead or no longer Felt-Known as All That Is. Guilt rising from such a ‘power’ then projects away from self in protection, and the sense of being rejected, abandoned and betrayed operates a hidden mind that is then assigned to others and attacked and subdued there. So this is also the archetype for the false flag of assigning sins to the feared chaos of exposure in ‘invalid, illegitimate or unworthy’ and so assuming power over them in the substitution of such power as ‘love’s protector’.

      The Saturnian age began with the appearance of Saturn – our first Sun – through the’ waters’ (Sky) of a Chaos of plasma in glow mode, as the Cosmic Egg. The story of Antiquity is entirely misread or misunderstood under a sky that no longer corroborates any of its witness worldwide, nor with a mind whose development is predicated upon such patterning of illumined constellation, breaking into catastrophic events that both split the mind of human and sets the translation of the split off ‘higher mind’ into a subjective physicalized and fragmented sense of self… and world.

  • I don’t see why the riddle would answer with an egg versus a vase or glass or any other fragile thing that would also shatter after falling from a wall.

  • It has evolved into an egg, but no one knows for sure what the original was. Once my Time Machine is complete, I will visit 18th Century England to find out the true identity of Humpty Dumpty 😀

  • a deeper more applicable meaning for our lives and for the humpty dumpty story could be this. That there are decisions that cannot be undone and the consequences of those decisions cannot be made right or changed or avoided.

    • Indeed, but the attempt to evade responsibility of self acceptance, is represented in the persistence of ‘all the King’s Men’ in what is effectively a cover story for a feared exposure or indeed feared truth.
      There is the life that we are – and there is the masking under the Emperor’s new clothes.
      While we cannot undo what we have ‘done’, we can uncover an integrity of being by no longer hiding or evading it – which is not what we expect under the masking thoughts. Those we have wronged, live within us. Broken relations are a matter of finding reconciliation such that we release the hate and fear to a willingness to be moved in Life rather than be victim or victimizer to a broken life. The fragments of self in each other that are restored to a deeper awareness as a result of a true recognition, are no longer fragments, but the dawning of a prior wholeness of being that the mind of the world masked over.

  • Basically you rehashed the Wikipedia entry on Humpty Dumpty here. Not much new. I also see little or no evidence that the original was a riddle, nor that the answer to said riddle would be “an egg.” The egg character appears to have been invented much later on, at some point before the illustrations that go with Lewis Carroll’s work.

  • Humpty dumpty was actually situated on the top of St Mary’s Church steeple, Colchester and was blown off after the parliamentary forces took Abbeygate.

    • Humpty Dumpty is the Mothers Daughter, when the daughter insults the mother, only the daughter can fix the wrong. The father can’t fix the daughters regression. The wall is the cement that keeps the family together and yet apart, the placement of the child first in any relationship. Can you figure why the egg is a clue to whom was the cause of breaking someone’s heart. The mom’s heart is broken, and the dad can’t fix this, only the daughter can mend what is broken.

  • Now we know that the story of Humpty Dumpty was a premonition about Donald Trump…always talking about the wall…he’s having a great fall right now…and he thinks he is a king…All of his horses and all of his men wont be able to put him back together again. Amen…

  • It is about Brexit

  • Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall (the relationship between England and the Colonies)
    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall (the relationship is broken due to taxes, etc…and we go to war with England circa 1775)
    All the King’s Horses and all the King’s men (the Redcoats, George III) couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again (the Colonies have won the war and have independence).

  • I would like to know the Colchester story connection with Jack Thompson. How did that name come to play in the Humpty Dumpty story?